Alfred Brendel, Barbican, London

Barbican, London

Alfred Brendel has never been one to hand music to audiences on a plate, demanding instead that we surrender our trust and listen along with him. Here he took a series of pieces by Mozart and Schubert that, on their own, could have seemed a touch lightweight; however, when they were followed by Beethoven's Op 109 Sonata, the whole slow-burning programme began to glow.

The tenor of Brendel's playing was set right away: level-headed, even slightly subdued, but making every nuance and ripple on the surface count. Many pianists would make grand gestures of the flourishes near the beginning of Mozart's C minor Fantasia, but Brendel was far more concerned with the counterpoint, the logic of the interweaving melodies. The two early Sonatas, K281 and 282, had a touch of deadpan wit to them, but little contrast: the difference between soft and loud was indicated only by a thickening of the timbre.

Schubert's Drei Klavierstücke were also kept in check, with the sudden, gossamer-light runs up and down the keyboard in the first of them taking us by surprise. In the second, a very small crescendo was enough to ratchet up the tension conjured by the cross-rhythms and the rumbling bass theme.

Even in the climaxes, Brendel's playing never fully opened out, and if taken individually these pieces might have been more satisfying, with a touch more showiness. But then they wouldn't have provided such an illuminating setting for the Beethoven, a work that grew from the good-natured mood Brendel had established, yet built on it something truly profound.

The brief, prestissimo second movement brought a hint of fire, but even then Brendel was keeping his powder dry, knowing that the real soul of the work would be revealed in the slow, deceptively simple rise and fall of the finale. More than ever, this last movement seemed to touch the stature of Bach's Goldberg Variations, though barely a quarter its length. This was a deeply moving performance, and the understated Schubert Impromptu that followed it was the ideal encore.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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